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'Cute Female Corpses' and Reddit's free-speech problem

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Embedded somewhere in Reddit’s colon is a community called r/CuteFemaleCorpses. Here, users post photos of dead, bloodied, half-naked young women, along with captions such as “I wish I had strangled her.” 

It’s sickening stuff. Even worse are the groups in its network: r/sexyabortions, r/rapingwomen, r/picsofdeadkids, r/beatingwomen, and r/killingwomen (which gets a “fantasy” tag). 

This is the shock section of Reddit, the modern-day Rotten.com. You’ll find photos of naked amputees and decapitated bodies—and that’s just in Reddit’s infamous “starter-level” shock hub, r/spacedicks. In other forums, you’ll find far more triggering content featuring actual dead children.

But these groups, which range from a few hundred to a few thousand people, are relatively tiny compared to the millions who populate the mainstream, front-facing factions of Reddit. They exist primarily for one reason: to test Reddit’s commitment to free speech.

Inevitably, though, mainstream Reddit stumbles upon something awful, and a firestorm erupts. In this case, a user in a Friday r/AskReddit thread titled “What is something you wish was illegal” brought up Cute Female Corpses, sending a surge of traffic to the subreddit. Along with the traffic came well-meaning redditors who expressed their shock by simply downvoting every thread to oblivion. To gird Cute Female Corpses against the attack, a user wrote a text post called “MODS!!!” asking moderators to make the subreddit private for the next 48 hours. The reaction wasn’t pretty.


 

Hosting photos of dead women is not, strictly speaking, illegal. It doesn’t violate one of Reddit’s few rules. And while similar subreddits featuring nonconsensual sexual photography, like r/creepshots, have been banned, that gesture was never extended to subreddits of sexualized young women who are dead. 

Reddit deals with controversial content “along strict legal lines.” General Manager Erik Martin has said that “morally questionable reddits like jailbait”—featuring sexualized images of underage teenagers—“are part of the price of free speech on a site like this.” (Jailbait, arguably Reddit’s most controversial forum in recent history, was eventually banned—but because of a moderator conflict.)

Users, then, are left with little recourse to speak out against content they feel is tantamount to sexual harassment or child pornography. Administrators do encourage users to message them and report content that violates the rules. But there’s not much you can do when content just simply freaks you out—except downvote it.

That’s why “vote brigading”—downvote sprees, like what Cute Female Corpses was hit with—is such a popular method of protest. It’s also viewed as an implicit violation of Reddit’s rule against vote manipulation, although that relationship isn’t clearly defined.

In 2012, Reddit updated its “no child pornography” rule with an addendum: “no suggestive or sexual content featuring minors.” But it came with a caveat: “We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal.”

The shock content will stay, and it will continue to incite conflict among the Reddit community. But Reddit must be realizing that free speech works both ways—if anyone has the power to create a group fetishizing raped and mangled children, there must be an equal opportunity for users to voice their opposition to such content. 

Until then, moderators are going to have a lot of downvote brigades to police. And that’s tough when no one has the bandwidth to do it.

Photo by h.koppdelaney/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)